Can Your Sprinter Van Do This? We Didn’t Think So!


While overlanding is all the rage at the moment, its origins lie in English gentlemen crossing Africa in Land Rovers. Chris Brion doesn’t live in Africa, but he is a proper British gentleman and does drive a Land Rover. Chris has built a lot of Rovers over the years for everything from daily driving to rockcrawling, but he wanted something truly unique that he could live out of for weeks at a time on mountain biking and hiking trips in the Southwest. He sold all of his other toys and put his time and energy into building this incredibly well thought out Defender.

Chris started by giving a wrecked Defender 90 that had been in his friend Jeff Payne’s yard a new lease on life. A Defender110 frame and rear body were sourced for extra wheelbase and storage space. The next order of business was more power, as Chris knew his expedition vehicle would not be light when it was completed. Chris rented space at local rover shop SWR Automotive, where he rolled up his sleeves and got to work installing a Cummins R2.8 turbodiesel backed by a 6L80E six-speed automatic transmission into his Defender. Rob Dassler at SWR Automotive was instrumental in guiding Chris dial running gear, adapters, transfer case ratio, suspension and axles to reliably handle the added power and weight. Chris was able to use some diesel Rover components, such as the radiator and exhaust from a 300Tdi, along with some clever out-of-the-box thinking, such as using a right-hand-drive steering box on the outside of the left-hand framerail for added engine clearance.

We think that the Cummins R2.8 is a great engine, and so does Chris Brion. He powered his Defender with the four-cylinder turbodiesel crate engine, which makes 161 hp and 310 lb-ft to easily move the heavy Rover down the trail. The engine is backed by a Zero Gravity Performance 6L80E six-speed automatic that is plenty strong and has been tuned by Mark Terrian at Heritage Driven.

Normally a Cummins swap would be the highlight of a vehicle, but in this case it is arguably overshadowed by the super-cool Alu-Cab Icarus top that replaces the factory hard top with a pop top. The top is fitted with Masai panoramic windows and an Alu-Cab 270-degree awning to provide shade in the desert. Inside, Chris worked with cabinetmakers Kevin Suddarth and Greg Baczek to essentially build a mini-RV that has all of the comforts of home, yet is capable of going far more places than the typical Winnebago or Sprinter van. While Chris hasn’t driven his Defender across Africa, there is no doubt he could comfortably do so if he felt compelled to.

Defenders originated in the 1980s as utility vehicles, and Chris kept that theme with his Rover, which still has bare metal floors with no carpets or floor mats. Exmoor Trim seats keep Chris and his passenger comfortable on long trips, but the real creature comforts are all behind the cockpit.

The Land Rover radius-arm and coil-spring suspension is a superb design and was retained, although Old Man Emu heavy-duty 1 1/2-inch lift coil springs were added to make room for the 33-inch-tall Goodyear Wrangler Duratacs mounted on military Land Rover wheels. The springs are part of the Gwyn Lewis 4×4 Challenge long-travel suspension that has new shock towers and spring relocators. The factory axlehousing was retained but upgraded with Ashcroft axles and an ARB Air Locker.

Note the offset rear end on Chris’ Defender. The factory rear axle still has 3.54 gears and receives power from the legendary Rover LT230 transfer case, which has a 1.2:1 reduction even in high range. The axle has been upgraded with a Detroit Locker and Ashcroft axles for reliability. The rear suspension uses heavy-duty trailing arms from Gwyn Lewis that are triangulated rather than using a track bar to locate the axle laterally.

The Alu-Cab 270-degree Shadow Awning can be deployed in seconds and is freestanding in all but the mightiest of winds. The 30 square feet of shade is a huge benefit in the desert Southwest, where tree cover can be scarce. Chris deliberately chose equipment that is durable and easy to use. While the initial cost may be higher, it is well worth it when you don’t have to fumble around with your gear after a long day on the trail.

The Alu-Cab Icarus Rooftop Conversion is the foundation of Chris’ Defender as a long-term camping platform. This replaces the factory top with a pop top that provides 8 feet of headroom inside the Rover, plenty of room for preparing a meal or changing clothes. The sides are waterproof but can be opened for ventilation and are fitted with mosquito netting. A 3-inch-thick foam mattress is housed inside the top to ensure a good night sleep.

Chris worked with Albuquerque cabinetmakers Kevin Suddarth and Greg Baczek to 3D scan, design, fabricate, and install the custom interior. It was built to Chris’ specifications with a sink, aluminum tie-down points, sliding drawers, and plenty of space to cleanly organize all the camping gear that Chris brings to support his outdoor activities.

Tech Specs
1994 Land Rover Defender
>Drivetrain
Engine: Cummins R2.8 turbodiesel
Transmission: 6L80E 6-speed automatic
Transfer Case: LT230
Front Axle: Land Rover with 3.54 gears, ARB Air Locker, and Ashcroft axles
Rear Axle: Land Rover with 3.54 gears, Detroit Locker, and Ashcroft axles
>Suspension
Springs & Such: Gwyn Lewis 4×4 Challenge long-travel kit
Tires & Wheels: 285/75R16 Goodyear Duratrac on Land Rover Wolf steel
Steering: RHD steering box on the outside of the frame
Lighting: JW Speaker Evolution 8700 headlights
Other Stuff: Alu-Cab Icarus rooftop conversion, Alu-Cab 270-degree awning, Masai Panorama windows, Tuffy center console, Engel freezer-fridge, Warn 9.5ti winch, Rockware front and rear bumpers, custom rock sliders by Jeff Payne, Webasto diesel heater, custom interior by Kevin Suddarth and Greg Baczek, Allisport radiator, transmission tuning by Heritage Driven



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